Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ Producer Apologizes for Bringing Historic Whipped Slave Photo to Red Carpet Premiere

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 30: (L-R) Guest and Joey McFarland attend Apple Original Films' "Emancipation" Los Angeles premiere at Regency Village Theatre on November 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Producer Joey McFarland has apologized after he ignited backlash online for bringing the historic “Whipped Peter” photograph to the premiere of Emancipation, the slave drama starring Will Smith.

McFarland appeared on the red carpet for Emancipation sporting the infamous Civil War photograph of the slave known as “Peter” whose scourged back became a uniting symbol against the evils of slavery. Though McFarland claims he wanted to preserve the photograph’s significance, people on social media felt he exploited the image. Per The Hollywood Reporter:

McFarland faced heavy criticism online following his appearance on the Nov. 30 premiere carpet from members of the entertainment industry, including #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign and The Black List founder Franklin Leonard. Both expressed distress and “disgust” over the producer’s decision to show off the photo, which the producer said in a video posted online that he brought so “a piece of Peter” would be with him.

Leonard questioned the producer’s very interest in and reasoning behind collecting artifacts related to enslaved Black Americans. “Why do you own the photograph? Why did you bring it to a movie premiere if the intent is to preserve it respectfully? You wanted ‘a piece of Peter’ here? You collect slave memorabilia that will be donated upon your death? What do you do with it in the meantime? So many questions,” he tweeted at the time.

McFarland responded to the controversy on Sunday with an Instagram post in which he said that he simply wanted to “honor this remarkable man and to remind the general public that his image is not only brought about change in 1863 but still resonates and promotes change today.”

Joey McFarland has apologized after sparking controversy for walking the red carpet at the Emancipation premiere with the original photo of an enslaved man known as Peter that inspired the film.

“After uncovering Peter’s origin story with help from diligent historians, I spent the last few years working with the Emancipation creative time in order to bring his story to life so worldwide audiences would have an opportunity to appreciate his heroism. I hope my actions don’t distract from the film’s message, Peter’s story and just how much impact he had on the world,” McFarland wrote.

McFarland added that he will be donating some of his photographs to museums and other historical preservation institutions.

“Throughout the research and development of Emancipation, I discovered photographs of overlooked and historically important individuals whose stories also needed to be told,” he said. “One photograph, of Martin Delaney, is on loan to the National Portrait Gallery and is currently on exhibit. My plan was always to donate the photographs to the appropriate institution, in consultation with the community, and I believe there is no better time to begin that process than now.”

“These photographs, which existed before me, will be around long after I am gone; they belong to the world,” he concluded. “My goal has always been to find the right permanent home and make sure they are accessible, to honor their significance. And most importantly, that the individuals depicted in the photographs are remembered and their stories are told with the greatest dignity and respect.”

Emancipation has received generally poor reviews from critics, who feel that the film walked a fine line between an action picture and a serious exploration of slavery.

“The character of Peter and the propulsive mood of Fuqua’s film have more in common with ‘The Legend of Nigger Charley’ than ’12 Years a Slave.’ It’s not altogether clear, however, that Fuqua’s choices are all that intentional to believe he purposely wants this sort of uncomfortable genre-bending,” noted Roger Ebert.com.

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